Enforceable Water Quality Standards
Measures the number of provinces and territories that have enforceable surface water quality standards.

Getting data to report on this impact measure is a work in progress. This shared measurement system belongs to all members of the Our Living Water Network, so if you have any data or ideas to share with us on this measure, please send us an email at [email protected].

Note: We recognize that measuring enforceable surface water quality standards are an imperfect characterization of how well surface water quality is regulated across Canada. For example, there are many laws and regulations across the country that form a regulatory framework limiting harm to surface water quality, notwithstanding the lack of enforceable surface water quality standards. We consider this impact measure a starting point, and would welcome any thoughts you have ([email protected]).

Overview

Many factors influence the quality of lakes, rivers, wetlands and other surface waters. Determining the quality of surface water therefore requires consideration of variables measuring a wide variety of characteristics. These include, among others, temperature, acidity, clarity and concentrations of various compounds. Some variables measure characteristics that are natural but can be influenced by human activities (for example, acidity and concentrations of heavy metals), while others measure characteristics that are entirely influenced by human activities (for example, concentrations of industrial pesticides).

The complexity of measuring surface water quality means that developing a single set of quality parameters applicable to all surface waterbodies is difficult but not impossible. Such a set of parameters has been developed by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment as part of its overall set of Canadian Environmental Quality Guidelines (CEQG). The CEQG contain two sets of surface water quality guidelines, one devoted to protection of surface water quality for agricultural uses and another, more stringent, devoted to protection of surface water quality for aquatic life, known as the Canadian Water Quality Guidelines for the Protection of Aquatic Life. The latter are “intended to protect all forms of aquatic life and all aspects of aquatic life cycles, including the most sensitive life stage of the most sensitive species over the long term from anthropogenic stressors such as chemical inputs or changes to physical components.” 

Though valuable for protecting aquatic life, the Canadian Water Quality Guidelines for the Protection of Aquatic Life are not legally enforceable. They are provided as voluntary guidelines that, if followed, should protect all aquatic life from the negative impacts of human activities on surface water quality. Being voluntary, it is questionable whether the guidelines do as much as they might to protect aquatic life. Adding further to this doubt is the fact that not all provinces/territories choose to apply the guidelines. Some have developed their own guidelines and others have no guidelines at all.

Water quality standards are relevant to Goal 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation) of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Target 6.3 of SDG 6 aims to “improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally” by 2030. Target 6.5 further aims to “implement integrated water resources management at all levels, including through transboundary cooperation as appropriate” by 2030.

Of the 14 federal, provincial, and territorial governments in Canada, six were found to have surface water quality standards in place as of November 2021 (Canada, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Quebec). The remaining jurisdictions were found not to have water quality standards in place. Of the six jurisdictions with standards in place, none had a standard that was considered legally enforceable. Five of the six standards were explicitly said not to be enforceable by the government responsible (Canada, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Quebec). Manitoba’s standard, though backed up by regulation, was not considered enforceable because only the part of the standard dealing with effluent water quality was backed up by penalties.

Jurisdiction

Surface water quality standards

Enforceable?

Canada

Canadian Environmental Quality Guidelines (CEQGs)

No

British Columbia

British Columbia Approved Water Quality Guidelines: Aquatic Life, Wildlife & Agriculture

No

Alberta

Water quality guidelines

No

Saskatchewan

Surface Water Quality Objectives

No

Manitoba

Water Quality Standards, Objectives, and Guidelines

No

Ontario

No specific surface water quality standards

n/a

Quebec

Critères de qualité de l'eau de surface

No

New Brunswick

No specific surface water quality standards

n/a

Nova Scotia

No specific surface water quality standards

n/a

Prince Edward

No specific surface water quality standards

n/a

Newfoundland and Labrador 

No specific surface water quality standards

n/a

Yukon

No specific surface water quality standards

n/a

Northwest Territories 

No specific surface water quality standards

n/a

Nunavut

No specific surface water quality standards

n/a

 

Our full analysis for this impact measure can be found here.

Last updated January 2022

Note: The data presented here represents our best research given the time and resources at hand. We acknowledge there may be errors. This shared measurement system belongs to all members of the Our Living Water Network, so if you have any corrections for us, or ideas to share on this measure, please send us an email at [email protected].

Enforceable Water Quality Standards|Measures the number of provinces and territories that have enforceable surface water quality standards.
Enforceable Water Quality Standards|Measures the number of provinces and territories that have enforceable surface water quality standards.
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